First Review: Life on Mars

Britain and crime shows go hand in hand. There’s a barrage of shows that sound like they are about to shout, ‘Oi you’re nicked!” and most of them, entirely watchable. So it was only a matter of time before somebody thought to blur the genre lines –but via time travel?

That’s just what Life on Mars has done. Before you’re thinking techno-fantasy or campy Doctor Who fun, drag your expectations back towards traditional British crime. From the makers of Spooks and Hustle, this 8 part series is serious in tone, despite it playing tricks with your mind. And herein lays its point of difference.

Sam Tyler (John Simm) is an ambitious detective in 21st century Manchester on the hustings of a murder case. When the killer kidnaps his partner and former girlfriend he becomes emotionally drawn into a web of the personal and professional. Despite a myriad of clues he is no closer to finding the killer and rescuing her.

So when the distressed Tyler driving along listening to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” on his i-Pod has a near-fatal accident, everything changes.

When he awakens he is found on the road in 1973. The fashion of his clothes has changed, his car transforms and buildings have vanished. “Life on Mars” is still playing –on an 8-track cartridge in the car. Has he slipped through a rip in time? Is he in a coma? Or merely insane?

The series drops hints (and unless they are red-herrings they’re pretty big ones) as our central character tries to make sense of the situation. Similarly, as viewer you are completely drawn in by its bold premise.

Slammed back into Britain’s answer to Jackie Brown or Starsky and Hutch, Tyler tries to cope with confusing sights and sounds. All the policemen are Bobbies. His fellow cops think nothing of being sexist. He tries to get an operator to connect him to his Virgin mobile. She hangs up offended. There are amusing 20th century references throughout this highly original and fantastical piece.

But being British drama it also links back to the story-arc of modern Tyler, as he is given key clues as to the Manchester killer. It is this fusion of dark drama amid twisted storytelling that works so brilliantly in Life on Mars. The only thing missing is Rod Serling stepping in with his Twilight Zone opener, “considered for your approval…”

Life on Mars premieres 8:30pm Sunday May 20 on ABC TV.


  1. Please. Hustle and Spooks were both referenced. And the point in mentioning Starsky and Hutch was that this was a British nod to the genre. A British nod to a British show doesn’t work the same way. Woulda been a ‘sad’ review if I’d actually given a good show the thumbs down.

  2. A good review but sad when Australians have terms of reference that are soley about cultural overdose..ever heard of The Sweeney ? How could anyone write a review about 70’s British Cop Drama and not have that reference ? Only an americaniZZed Aussie..and there are so many who are clueless to the fact and hence they miss the subtleties of British humour..

    very sad.

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